By Kevin Anselmo
Croatia's young and talented team takes on an experienced Italy this evening in Podgorica for the right to advance to the quarter-finals.
Croatia and Italy, two squads with stark differences in style and team make-up will tip-off at 18:00 local time at the Moraca Sports Center.
While Italy have been a mainstay at the top of Europe over the last decade, Croatia have struggled, failing to finish better than seventh in the four previous EuroBaskets. Italy claimed medals in three of the last four EuroBaskets, including gold in 1999. Eight players on Italy's current roster were members of their silver medal team at last year's Athens Olympics.
Croatia are coming off an impressive 80-67 win over Turkey that allowed them to clinch second place in Group B. During the game, Croatia went on an astounding 34-2 run spanning two quarters.
|At 22 Stefano Mancinelli is one of the few younger players on the Italian team|
“You have one team coming in here flying high after a win and another team that has won medals in the last two championships, so there are no favourites,” said Croatian head coach Neven Spahija.
“They have a team that has played lots of years together and a coach who has won medals and championships,” said Croatia's Nikola Vujcic.
Croatia beat Bulgaria in their opener 88-84 and then lost to Lithuania 85-67. Italy beat Germany 84-82, lost to Russia 81-67 and concluded preliminary round play with a 99-62 victory over Ukraine.
“We played a little better against Ukraine and we need to get better because the games are only going to get more difficult,” Italian guard Dante Calabria said.
Croatia's second place finish in Group B gave the team the luxury of staying in Podgorica where they played the preliminary round. With a third-place finish, Italy had to spend yesterday on the road travelling from Vrsac to Podgorica.
“For sure the game against Italy will be difficult, but fortunately we could stay at home here in Podgorica,” said Croatia's Gordan Giricek.
A major part of Croatia's offense comes from their trio of NBA players: guards Giricek and Zoran Planinc and center Mario Kasun. Italy does not have anyone on their roster playing in the NBA
Croatia will look to use their youth to an advantage by playing up-tempo. Their team consists of nine players 25 years old and younger, while Italy has seven players over the age of 30.
“We're not as athletic as they are so we cannot run with them,” said Italian center Angelo Gigli. “If we play one-on-one with them, they'll win for sure.”
Croatia have three players averaging in double figures, led by Giricek with 19 a game. Italy has just one player averaging in double digits with Gianluca Basile averaging 10 points. Italian head coach Carlo Recalcati goes deep into his bench as the Italians have nine players averaging six or more points a game.
An interesting match-up features Italy's Giacomo Galanda and Croatia's Vujcic. Both big men have the ability to spread out the opposition's defense with their outside shooting.
The two teams played an exhibition game last month, with Italy prevailing 86-75. Croatia have won three of the four games played between the two teams in EuroBasket history. The most recent encounter was a 65-57 Croatian victory in the Elimination Round of the 2001 EuroBasket.